Child Care Arrangements in Urban and Rural Areas. Literature Review


This section reviews the results of several research studies. They were chosen because they examined differences in urban and rural child care arrangements from a national perspective, which makes their results more comparable to the findings from the NHES than studies that only examined populations from specific localities or regions.  Comparisons across the studies presented in this section, though important, should be done cautiously because they utilized different research designs.  For example, the studies examined different age groupings of children, defined urban and rural areas differently, and categorized types of care settings differently.  In addition, some of the studies presented in this section examined all pre-school age children, while others focused on children with working mothers.

Two of the most thorough studies examining child care arrangements were completed in the early 1990s; the National Child Care Survey (Hofferth, Brayfield, Deich, & Holcomb, 1991) and the Profile of Child Care Settings (Kisker, Hofferth, Phillips, & Farquher, 1991).  The National Child Care Survey (NCCS) examined a nationally representative sample of U.S. families with children and produced an extensive set of descriptive findings, including a series of tables on the child care arrangements of pre-school age children under age five.  The 1990 Profile of Child Care Settings Study examined a nationally representative sample of center directors and regulated home-based care providers.

Several additional studies have compared child care in urban and rural areas.  Two of these used data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), which included a national sampling design and a series of questions regarding the child care arrangements of children.  The two studies using the SIPP cited in this paper examined the child care arrangements of children under age 5 during the time that their mothers worked (Casper, 1996; Smith, 2006).  In addition to the SIPP, a study by Grace et al. (2006) examined a national sample of children between 6 and 22 months of age using data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS-B).  Unlike the two studies analyzing SIPP data, this study examined the care arrangements of all children, including those without employed mothers.  Another key difference between this study and the other studies reviewed in this section is that the population sampled for the ELCS-B included children between 6 and 22 months of age, whereas several of the other studies examined children age 0 to 4.  Finally, a study by Swenson (2007) compared the characteristics and caseload sizes of urban and rural children served by the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) using administrative records.

The literature has consistently shown that non-parental care is common for both urban and rural children, but it has not shown a clear pattern as to whether urban or rural children are more likely to receive this care.  Early findings from the NCCS showed that rural children under age 5 with working mothers were less likely to receive care from non-parental sources compared to those in urban areas (Hofferth et al., 1991).  However, later studies using SIPP data collected in 1993 and 2002 did not show substantial differences in participation in non-parental care when comparing children in metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas (Casper, 1996; Smith, 2006).  In contrast, the rural children sampled for the ECLS-B between 6 and 22 months of age were more likely than non-rural children to be cared for in regular non-parental arrangements (Grace et al., 2006).

Researchers of child care and human services policies often argue that center-based child care is less prevalent in rural areas.  Previous research has provided some evidence for this argument, although not all studies have shown this pattern.  Early findings from the NCCS showed that rural children under age 5 with working mothers were less likely to be cared for in center arrangements than urban and suburban children (Hofferth et al., 1991).  Swenson (2007) also showed lower participation in center-based care among rural children subsidized by the CCDF compared to similar urban children.  Additional unpublished tabulations by the author also showed that participation in center-based care among subsidized non-metropolitan children was correlated with the amount of urban influence associated with their resident counties. In other words, participation in center-based care was more common in non-metropolitan counties containing large towns and in counties adjacent to metropolitan counties than other non-metropolitan counties.

In contrast, findings from the SIPP data collected in 2002 did not show large differences between metropolitan and non-metropolitan children under age 5 in participation in similar arrangements referred to  as “organized care” (Smith, 2006).[1]  Similarly, findings from the ECLS-B did not show statistical differences in the use of center-based care between urban and rural children (Grace et al., 2006). However, it is difficult to compare the findings from the ELCS-B with the other studies reviewed above because center-based care is less common among the age group sampled by the ECLS-B (between 6 and 22 months) than among older pre-school age children. 

For children participating in non-parental care, the literature does not show a clear pattern as to whether the amount of time they spend in care each week is the same in urban and rural areas.  A study using the NCCS showed that rural pre-school age children with employed mothers were in care for less hours per week than urban children (Hofferth et al., 1991), while a study using SIPP data collected in 2002 (Smith, 2006) showed rural children being in care for slightly more hours per week than urban children. Another study that examined the ELCS-B did not find substantial urban/rural differences in weekly hours in care for pre-school age children (Grace et al., 2006).

The number of children in care per adult provider is sometimes used when describing the environments of care arrangements.  The literature is limited in its showing of urban and rural differences concerning this topic.  As showed by Kisker, Hofferth, Phillips, & Farquhar (1991), the 1990 Profile of Child Care Settings found that, compared to urban areas, the average number of children enrolled per setting in rural areas was statistically smaller for center-based programs, but not different for regulated home-based programs.[2]  Grace et al. (2006) did not find statistically significant differences in the mean number of children per adult caregiver for relative care and center-based care, but found that rural children in non-relative care had higher children-per-adult ratios than similar children in non-rural settings.

One area in which the literature has shown consistent results is in the area of child care costs; child care is less expensive in rural areas compared to urban areas.  This pattern has also been shown with studies using the NCCS and data collected for the SIPP in 2002 (Hofferth et al., 1991; Smith, 2006).

[1]  As cited in Smith (2006), organized care was defined as care that “is provided in day care centers, nursery schools, preschools, federal Head Start programs, and kindergarten.”  Informal non-relative care included “family day care providers, in-home babysitters or nannies, neighbors, friends, and other non-relatives providing care either in the child’s or provider’s home.”

[2]  Additionally, the study showed that average teacher wages in center programs were lower in rural areas compared to urban and suburban areas, although turnover in rural centers was lower than in urban and suburban centers.

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